The United States’ military involvement in Afghanistan and its drone airstrikes in Pakistan today are directly connected to the September 11th terrorist attacks. The US overthrew the Afghanistan government, known as the Taliban, in late 2001 because it refused to hand over Osama bin Ladin who was responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks. The Taliban was hosting bin Laden and giving him the freedom to establish terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. From 2003, the Taliban gradually regrouped and is again a serious threat to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban movement began in 1994 in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan but the Afghan mullahs who started it were educated in local Pakistani religious schools (or madrassas). These mullahs were in Pakistan due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Millions of Afghans were displaced in the nine-year plus conflict. Many of them crossed into Pakistan to live in refugee camps and to directly participate in the vast international effort to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. The Afghan freedom fighters were called the Mujahideen. Thousands of foreign fighters from all over the Muslim world also joined them. The Mujahideen was not a single unified body. It was a loose collection of many smaller factions, each with its own leader. The Mujahideen was more than just an anti-Soviet fighting force, it was a religious and social movement.
The US, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim countries donated billions of dollars to the war effort to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan and the bulk of this money went to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, which directed the resources to the pro-Pakistani, Pashtun-led factions of the Mujahideen movement.* The Pashtuns are the largest Afghan ethnic group making up about 42% of Afghanistan’s population (see map to the right). The Pashtuns are mainly concentrated in the south and east of Afghanistan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (known as the Durand Line). However, Pashtuns are also native to Pakistan, mostly located in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), and the northern part of Balochistan Province. That is to say that the Pakistan-Afghanistan border awkwardly divides the Pashtun population between two states. Afghanistan’s other major ethnic groups include the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. These groups reside mainly in the northern and western parts of Afghanistan, which border Iran and the newly independent Central Asian states. The Taliban started among the Pashtuns.
The Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 but the Afghan communist government managed to remain in power until 1992 when Kabul, the capital, finally fell to a Tajik Mujahideen leader named Ahmad Shah Massoud, who latter became the leader of the Northern Alliance, which helped the US topple the Taliban in 2001 (see photo below), although Massoud himself was killed just before the US-led effort began. Kabul’s fall to the Tajiks sparked a very bloody ethnic civil war because Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, a Pashtun and the ISI’s preferred Mujahideen leader, refused Tajik rule over the capital and fought Massoud’s forces. The Afghanistan civil war continued for the next two years, and the former Mujahideen leaders were now known internationally as “warlords” with each ruling over a piece of Afghanistan.
Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan was hit the worst by the post-Soviet era insecurity because of the presence of so many smaller warlords.** Eventually, a small group of Pashtun mullahs from the Kandahar area discussed among themselves about what needed to be done to restore law and order and their solution was to institute Islamic Sharia law. The initial incident that prompted the Taliban to act militarily for the first time occurred in 1994: two young girls who were taken to one of the warlord camps and raped repeatedly. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was asked by locals to intervene. Omar and 30 Taliban attacked the warlord base, freed the girls, and hung the warlord leader from a tank barrel.
After a string of successes and rapidly growing popularity among fellow Pashtuns, the Taliban eventually gained the support of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani military, and the ISI, which were slow to shift their support from Hekmetyar to the Taliban.*** The Taliban took Kandahar in November 1994, Herat in September 1995, and Kabul in September 1996. Whenever the Taliban sustained heavy losses, particularly in their sustained fighting with the non-Pashtun tribes, the Pakistani Pashtuns with the full support of the Pakistani government, would send thousands of new maddrassa students across the border to fight with the Taliban, an advantage the non-Pashtuns were unable to counter until the US teamed with the Northern Alliance to remove the Taliban from power in 2001.
* Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press: New Haven. 2001. Pp. 18-19. Mr. Rashid is a noted Taliban expert. His book is a must read for anyone wanting to learn about the origins of the Taliban.
** Rashid, pp. 21-30.
*** Rashid, pp. 26, 183-195. There were a number of economic and political reasons for why the Pakistani government supported the Taliban.